The Money Shot

The following extract of Jane Mills’ The Money Shot – Cinema, Sin and Censorship (Pluto Press Australia, 2001) is published here with the permission of Pluto Press Australia. The book is available at the recommended retail price of $AUD32.95 or at the online purchase price of $AUD29.65. For information on purchasing The Money Shot, click here.

Please note: this extract appears without the chapter’s endnotes.

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I sometimes recall the long British Airways jumbo jet journey which originally brought me to Australia: the constant drone and soporific atmosphere that numbs the brain; the infantilisation induced by the strict, regular feeding hours; the bland, heavily edited movies making even the in-flight magazine seem exciting; the lack of any meaningful discourse with fellow passengers; the certainty that if anything really significant happened on the ground I wouldn’t be told and, even if I was, what the hell — there was nothing I could do about it. Twenty-four hours of passivity, unreality, no involvement and no responsibility; isolated time away from any significant cultural involvement — a day and night out from the democratic process.

The cocooned atmosphere of a long flight provides the perfect analogy for the post-Thatcherite nanny-state of the Britain I left in 1995, where increasing censorship and media oligopolies made it impossible for adults to read, hear and see what they wanted. In Blairite Britain, little has changed. No matter that the violent crime rate remains stable. The unproven belief that fantasy screen violence causes actual societal violence permeates the government’s attitude towards screen culture.

Logic is not always strong within the pro-censorship lobby. In the mid-1990s, for example, the British Liberal–Democrat Member of Parliament David Alton proposed new legislation to ban videos containing ‘degrading or gratuitously violent scenes liable to cause psychological damage to a child, or present a child with an inappropriate role model’. The absurdities of this last point are a joy to contemplate, as British film writer John Walker’s rhetorical question revealed: ‘For who would want Citizen Kane as a role model?’ Walker provides a useful historical perspective on the moral panic surrounding videos. The video conjures up for many an image (superbly captured in Wes Craven’s Scream) of blood-lusty, mindless youths sitting with their trigger-happy fingers on the remote control, obsessively backtracking and replaying over and over again particularly violent sequences. This, so the argument goes, enables them to ignore any subsequent scenes in which, as is often the way in mainstream cinema, good triumphs over evil as punishment is meted out to the on-screen baddies. Walker reminds us that this fear is not new:

…there is little doubt that video has become the latest scapegoat of public concerns about violence in society as, in the past, have cheap newspapers, music hall, jazz, rock’n’roll, and horror comics. Indeed, government dislike of popular culture goes back more than 400 years, to laws compelling the licensing of wandering performers, who were similarly blamed for spreading disorder and dissension.

One of the major factors which makes politicians single out popular culture to blame is that what they really dislike, distrust — and want to control — is the masses who consume and enjoy popular culture. This much was endorsed by US Senator Joseph Lieberman who, when announced as Al Gore’s Democratic vice-presidential running mate in August 2000, made a dramatic appeal to Hollywood, urging media executives to change the ‘toxic culture of violence and vulgarity’. As outgoing President Clinton hobnobbed with Hollywood glitterati Michael Douglas, Lisa Kudrow, Barbra Streisand and John Travolta, and graciously accepted millions of Hollywood dollars for campaign funds, Lieberman complained of ‘cultural corruption’ in the form of the ‘incivility’ in entertainment. Could it be that the vulgar and uncivilised sexual proclivities of US presidents can be blamed on a Terminator or a Mad Max?

It appears to be left to the wealthy elite of the silver screen to support the tastes and desires of the common people, while the democratically elected representatives of these people pledge to further restrict what adults can read, see and hear, focusing their sights on the most popular of all cultural products: television, video, cinema, computer games and the Internet. While many artists in this postmodern age are hell-bent on blurring the boundaries between high culture and low culture, our politicians appear determined to preserve the distinction.

If the polls are anything to go by, this distinction appears to be made by the Australian people as well. But the polls may not be anything to go by: it seems likely that those who tell the pollsters they believe there should be less screen violence are the very same as those who queue up for the latest Hollywood violent blockbuster, who rent the MA and R-rated videos, and who use the Internet for a bit of vicarious, violent pleasure. This was supported by the mid-1990s research for the Australian Office of Film and Literature Classification which revealed that while many expressed concern about violence in relation to film and video and an overwhelming 91 per cent felt there should be more enforcement of age restrictions on R-rated films, only 4 per cent disapproved of the violence they had actually seen in a recent film. Does this mean audiences are better able to distinguish between fantasy and reality when in front of a screen than when in front of a pollster?

It’s as if our moralising politicians and would-be censors are caught in the grip of scopophobia, a morbid fear of the visual. But what is it about popular culture, especially the visual, that so frightens us? Like any phobia, rationality plays only a small role. Basically, as the final chapter of this book explores in greater depth, the rule of thumb seems to be: if it’s written and literary and appeals to a relatively tiny number of people, then it’s high art and acceptable, but if it’s visual and popular, then it’s probably low art and dangerous. The issues of power and control which lurk behind this fear of the mobilis vulgaris were obvious to the great filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini. Responding to a new wave of censorship legislation in Italy in the 1970s he wrote: ‘…cinema can be, and in part is, outside the strict control of the State…so the State wants to dominate it’. Producers, he continued, want to make money, and aren’t prepared to stop making films, so they ‘make them the way the State wishes them to. The great mass of Italians do not possess the critical tools to resist this [censorship] action of the State.’

Pasolini’s perceptive remarks help explain the widespread passive acceptance of increased censorship and the impossibility of the public giving informed consent to the democratic process: their passivity is induced by the ignorance that inevitably follows in the wake of censorship. Whenever a film or video is banned, we all take sides in the censorship debate, but we seldom get around to discussing or understanding the very issues the censored material is exploring. It often feels as if this is the aim of the censors: to deflect us from deepening our understanding of the historical processes that produce the inhumanity and intolerance that the banned scenes of sex and/or violence demonstrate by having to talk about more abstract rights and freedoms. This became very obvious when the Spanish film Tras el Cristal was banned at the Sydney Queer Screen Festival in 1995. At a seminar to discuss the censorship decision none of us mentioned the lessons of fascism under Franco, the main subject depicted in the film. How could we? We hadn’t seen it. And Pauline Hanson’s nationalistic and chauvinistic One Nation Party was only a couple of years away.

As I examine more deeply in the next section of the book on sex and censorship (Chapters 9–11), the same is true for Pasolini’s banned-unbanned-rebanned film Salo, which he made because he believed Italians needed reminding of their recent fascist past. Should we also be allowed to forget? And it almost became true for Jim Jarmusch’s nearly banned Dead Man, which portrayed more truthfully than most westerns the violent exploitation that characterised early American society. Were the classifiers afraid some Australians might pause to contemplate what were undoubtedly similar realities for the colonising white settlers in their own history?

What happens to a society that ignores, forgets or distorts its past? Historian Inga Clendinnen, exploring the dangers of simplifying or whitewashing history, provides the answer: ‘Teach grown men and women a nursery version of their history and you will make babies of them when it comes to the actual workings of their own society, and of their nation in a wider world.’ To illustrate her point about the dangers of infantilisation, Clendinnen offers the United States of America, ‘where American history is on the syllabus at most years in secondary and primary school, where the American flag is worshipped daily, and where “America” officially can do no wrong…The hypocrisy of much American foreign policy is only possible because so many of its people believe that the USA simply could not engage in dishonourable actions. They believe in their nursery version. So, even more alarmingly, do many people within the United States government.’

In the wake of tragedies such as the massacre at Port Arthur, knee-jerk demands for increased censorship are possibly inevitable, even understandable. Especially when almost the first task of every journalist seems to be to unearth, whether or not it exists, some correlation between the violent act and the alleged criminal’s viewing habits. But censorship merely promotes the bias against understanding where the real roots of violence lie. If there has been a worldwide increase in the popular acceptance of the need for more censorship, this too can be understood: the banning of screen violence leads to a passive, infantile condition in which we lack the ability to acquire or make sense of our inhumanity. Cultural and political isolation is ensured as we are left ignorant of how other societies and their cultures do or don’t make sense of inequality, degradation, exploitation and power struggles when moving images are sanitised or banned.

Hypocrisy flourishes wherever there is ignorance. Ignorance encourages a wowserism, where the myths and fallacies about the relationship between screen violence and actual violence flourish, and where laws designed to protect children then prevent adults and children alike from the possibility of exploring in full what is involved in learning how to make moral judgments. Where there is a diminished possibility for its citizens to learn how to resist both censorship and some of the ideas that the censored material is representing, a society is likely to return to what the former Chief Censor Janet Strickland called the ‘hypocrisy and double standards’ of Victorian times.

The myths surrounding censorship are legion, and are largely based on the unproven premise that screen violence incites people to actual violence. There are those who appear to believe it is unnecessary to prove the causal connection; it’s up to the anti-censors, say the moralisers and censors, to prove that it doesn’t. The quite extraordinary mental contortion of this false syllogism suggests a range of new censoring possibilities:

• Most violence takes place in the home and is perpetrated by family members or people who are known to the victim. Until the Australian Family Association actually proves there is no evidence between these factors and violence, shall we ban homes, families and friendships?

• It’s noticeable that it’s mainly men — in society and in the movies — who commit violent crimes. It may seem to some an overly Amazonian response, but why don’t we bite the bullet and simply ban men?

• It’s entirely probable that poverty, unemployment and poor education might be causally connected to violence, although this has not actually been proven. Would anyone like to support a campaign to ban these kinds of inequality?

How much easier for governments and those with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo to point the finger at screen violence than to root out those conditions which are implicated in societal violence. As McKenzie Wark has pointed out: ‘Wishing to identify some kind of bad “other” out there that is causing trouble is a way of not taking either personal or collective responsibility.’ Professor Duncan Campbell, chair of the 1990 National Committee on Violence, said something similar: ‘The obsession with violent films, videos and games is a result of desperately searching around for something to pin the blame on.’

But academics and experts, whose observations are underpinned by an academic rigour and educational discipline, have been disfranchised by the federal government. Arts Minister Senator Alston announced that academics and experts were to be removed from the Classification Board within the OFLC because they had become not more professionally experienced, as might be expected, but ‘comfortable and desensitised’. These experts were to be replaced by those with experience of parenting, because according to Alston, ‘if you have parents who are simply viewers…they are much more likely to give you a direct response from the heartland of Australia, rather than from an academic point of view…What you don’t want is the experts or the so-called professionals who tend to become very cynical and particularly when they look at research.’
This cynical condemnation of expertise must have come as a surprise to millions of Australians, especially those who manage to combine professional expertise with parenting (including several existing classifiers). Were Alston’s heartland parents the very ones who, in the previous year’s version of this moral panic, had needed the television-monitoring V-chip imposed upon them because they were too incompetent to switch off the television themselves? Or were they the parents who needed more stringent censorship because they failed to provide the educational home environment to help their children distinguish between fantasy and reality? No matter: the knowledge, education, expertise, experience and rigorous training of professional media experts and academics was worth zilch. You didn’t need a university degree or any training to qualify you for a place on the new classification board — all you needed was for your contraceptive to let you down!

Governments which embrace the censorship of screen violence perpetuate and promote a passivity towards aggression and inhumanity by removing the very information we need to agitate, protest and demand an end to the conditions that produce violence in the first place. The question we should be asking is not ‘Does screen violence cause harm?’, but ‘Can the censorship of violence cause harm?’ More than this, ‘Do we have enough screen violence?’

The portrayal of violence on the screen can help us understand actual violence. But unless we have the tools to read and understand screen representations, freedom of speech may not be enough. Screen literacy can — and should — be taught. Like other forms of literacy, it should be safeguarded as a human right. Cineliteracy can help turn audiences from passive consumers into critical analysts armed with the skill needed to make sense of what they see. As film critic David Stratton noted in his review of The Rock, an action movie with some minutes excised to ‘protect’ Australian audiences, many of the sometimes derided and criticised violent action movies of the 1990s carry with them a positive small-‘l’ liberal message: the negative consequences of covert US interference in developing countries, for example, was featured in both the Arnold Schwarzenegger action movie True Lies and the Steven Seagal adventure Under Siege 2.

These are far from unimportant issues. They are ones that we should all be encouraged to explore — and the cinema provides us with a safe place in which to do that. Whether or not we can explore and debate these issues in this way will always be contested by those politicians who promote the illusion that social ills can be fixed by restricting their portrayal. The belief in censorship as a quick fix for societal violence was addressed by the Head Curator at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Tony Bond, who explained the prevalence of fantasy media violence as ‘a part of the wider problem which is the denial of mortality in western culture. Were death not such a taboo, then artists of all kinds would not be so drawn to the exploration of it.’ The denial of mortality is very much a part of a society that accepts a nursery view of the past whenever it seems expedient. Unless artists working within areas of both high and low culture explore this taboo, how are we ever going to learn how to accept personal or collective responsibility for the deep-rooted causes of societal violence? How, as Susan Sontag asked, if we censor, ban, or snip away at those bits of art and popular culture that we’re afraid of, will the next generation learn the lessons of good and evil?

In the 1980s there were signs that the nature of violence as portrayed in the Hollywood blockbuster were changing. Mainstream action movies, such as the Lethal Weapon trilogy, Die Hard 1 and 2, Predator, The Last Action Hero and True Lies, became funnier, more self-reflexive, more camp — and more popular. Not because filmmakers and audiences had become desensitised but because, as the London Financial Times film critic Nigel Andrews wrote:

Camp invites us to see and savour the contradictions between a film’s aspirations and reality…Camp allows a filmgoer to stand outside a film and see it wryly from multiple angles…the whoopings and hollerings of those who side with Action Arnie or bullet-spraying Sly bespeak an awareness that this is excess as style. More and more this perceptual sophistication offers itself as modern cinema’s own deconstruction programme, one that makes life even more problematic for today’s would-be censors, who find themselves aiming at a perpetual moving target.

For those with limited experience of cinema in general or of violent films in particular, audience laughter is frequently incorrectly read as a response to the violence rather than its style of representation, which is condemned as ‘gratuitous’ and in excess of the requirements of the narrative. What these critics fail to realise is that what they’re doing is criticising the violent films for revealing what mainstream cinema conventionally conceals. Various national, independent, experimental cinemas, as well as much action and postmodern cinema, all offer a healthy challenge to this convention — unless, that is, they are subjected to censors with high levels of political and economic conformity and low levels of cineliteracy.

Arguing that censorship alone can’t end the cultural force of violence, Australian writer John Miner offered some perceptive comments about why Hollywood violence can seem gratuitous to non-US audiences. He proposed that the United States was a nation whose history includes a violent revolution and struggle for independence, and a bloody civil war — the first of the modern wars where thousands were killed in a single day — a society which needed a Lincoln to place such violence as part of a struggle for the survival of democracy:

It is no wonder that American portrayals of violence are sometimes interpreted in our society as gratuitous when an American audience would see them as integral to a philosophical, even a theological position. Hollywood is not going to stop hundreds of years of cultural acceptance overnight. It’s not Hollywood culture that is at the heart of the problem. Violence is a part of American history and has performed a function in the most serious American literature for 200 years that it has never done in this country.

But Miner writes as if violence is not a part of Australian history. It clearly is — the treatment of the early convicts, the frontier wars with the Aboriginal peoples, and the Aboriginal deaths in custody statistics are all testimony to high levels of violence, both in the formation of the Australian nation and today. It is also present in the very denial, by some, of the existence of the stolen generations, as well as in the fact. Violence is a large part of Australia’s past and present, but where is it culturally represented? We see very little of it in our screen culture today. In the late 1970s to mid-1980s there were the vigorously violent and fantastical worlds of Mad Max. There was also the widely misunderstood realistic representation of Aboriginal violence set against the endemic violence of white colonial racism in The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith. In 1992 we saw the bold, confronting Romper Stomper spark valuable debate about the connections between racism, incest, hatred, anger and murder. The tragi-comic Bad Boy Bubby and even the spoof Body Melt also used the representation of violence as a means of exposing the usually dark, hidden places we are mostly too scared to visit. There are others, of course, but a glance down the lists of recent Australian Film Institute nominations reveals very few contestatory films in Australia’s mainstream public-funded cinema.

There are virtually no movies which explore violence as interestingly or validly as do films such as Once Were Warriors, which looked violence resolutely in the face — and prompted a nationwide debate about racism, poverty and domestic violence in New Zealand. In the United Kingdom Trainspotting provided a powerful critique of the evil and violence of an uncivil society in drug-ravaged Thatcherite Britain — ‘There is no such thing as society; we are all individuals now.’ But here in Australia? Only The Boys and Chopper in recent years have been bold enough to approach the relationship between economic deprivation, hatred, anger and the psychological formation of the criminal mind. Interestingly, The Boys chose not to use much explicit representation of violence, but there is no sanitisation in it either.

Where are the Australian films that portray the societal violence, both historical and present-day, that we should be exploring, making sense of and, with this knowledge, trying to diminish and eliminate? The general reluctance on the part of the Australian filmmaking community to confront what might be painful indicates a high degree of censorship even before the OFLC gets a look in. An example of this is the way the gay bashing scene in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert is marginalised by a narrative that focuses on visually acceptable images. Censorship makes for a passive, infantilised condition in which what happens in the real world is not addressed. Unreality, no involvement, no responsibility: time out from the democratic process. It feels remarkably similar to being on that British Airways jumbo jet.

Other Voices 4

George Miller is one of Australia’s most imaginative filmmakers. His Mad Max films, which he has said tell a tale of redemption, suggest he has an artistic, creative need to use powerful, sometimes violent, images to express what he wants to say. The first film he made (with Byron Kennedy) was the short Violence in the Cinema Part 1, a hilarious satire aimed at the critics who attacked screen violence for being causally linked to actual violence. At the time (1972) these arguments were raging around Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs and Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. The Kennedy–Miller film features a nerdy academic (Arthur Dignam) earnestly warning of the dangers in screen representations of brutality. As he gets ever more feverishly moralistic, very slowly and before our very eyes, he is nastily hacked by an axe and finally shot to death. It is a very funny, highly polemical film. Phillip Adams recounts how he initially thought it was a masterpiece and only later realised that Miller and Kennedy had lifted, word for word, a speech he had delivered some months earlier to an international psychiatric conference.

By the time Mad Max was made Adams was no longer a Miller fan. He advised investors against participating in it and attacked Miller for making a film ‘with all the moral uplift of Mein Kampf‘, claiming it would become ‘a special favourite of rapists, sadists, child-murderers and incipient Mansons and Calleys…’. Miller was clearly undeterred by the fact that his film caused Adams’ opposition to censorship to be shaken. The subsequent Mad Max movies continued along the same path as the first, generating high-impact emotion from a skilled filmmaking technique, creating wondrous displays of violent action. Some thirty years later George Miller had second thoughts. Drawing upon his experience as a doctor, he likened the discourse on media violence to the debate on tobacco: ‘To say there is no hard evidence of the harmful effects of media violence seems to me as disingenuous as the cigarette companies and their medical scientists, who for so long defended tobacco with the same cries.’ Miller gave some anecdotal evidence of the ways cinema and television can impinge on behaviour, including a man who dressed up like Mad Max and a woman who wanted to revive the spirits of a depressed horse with the words of the song from Babe. He maintained that the line from losing oneself in the world on the screen to a massacre such as Port Arthur ‘is not too long a bow to draw’. ‘Storytelling,’ he said, ‘is a force of nature. There should be one of those warnings stencilled on the container: “Hazardous material” or, at the very least, “Handle with care.”’ While ‘censorship might not work’, he said, ‘prudence sometimes does’. If filmmakers exercised prudence, he believed films could have the ability to ‘cohere, amaze, inspire, and…heal’.

My response was to question Miller’s anecdotes as evidence for the causal connection between screen and societal language. His analogy with tobacco-causing cancer seems to me to be highly emotive and wrong: apart from anything else, the tobacco industry systematically censored all evidence about smoking and lung cancer for years. There is a very real difference between a chemical reaction and an audience interpretation. Analogies conceal differences as well as suggest parallels, and can be even more blatant attempts to manipulate an audience than cinematic rhetoric. Audiences, however, prove again and again able to resist both. Prudence is ‘a warm fuzzy word which hides the unacceptable: self-censorship’.

I was curious to know why George Miller, of all people, should be arguing that cinema’s realism meant it was a mirror or a window on the world, reflecting back to audiences a supposedly true picture of what society is like and, furthermore, sanctioning or promoting what it reflected. But where does questioning Miller’s view of cinema’s relationship to the real take this argument? As Australia’s leading film critic, Adrian Martin, observed, many of these arguments about cinema’s relationship to the real have become ‘a way of stopping debate dead rather than elaborating it’. I’d noticed something similar during a number of stoushes on censorship. It was often apparent that while both sides seem to share a common language, we are actually engaged in different discourses. Each side has a tendency to resort to crime and audience statistics in an attempt to rely upon empirical evidence. In fact, each side merely relies upon a different belief system based on hunch, political alignment, and very different theories of human nature and the role we expect culture to play in society. Screen culture is not an experimental science in search of law, but an interpretive one, in search of meaning.

Martin points out that the ‘anti-realists’ (in whose camp I count myself), while pouring scorn upon the ‘realists’ for demanding that cinema have some sort of high-minded purpose, are not immune from making assumptions themselves about the need for art to perform some sort of work in society. We constantly stress the artistic, generic nature of the violent movie, claiming it has its own changing history, its codes, and its precise aesthetic uses. And we insist upon the use-value of art. I don’t know why we expect art to be anything other than just art, which possibly has no ‘use’ other than to satisfy a desire for visual pleasure and satisfaction, but we do. We imbue the appreciation of art with some sort of Protestant work ethic and demand it does us good. We want it to transport us, mostly to lift us up to the giddy, high moral grounds where we can derive sanctified satisfaction. We insist that art has to be larger and usually purer than life in order to inspire. If it can’t inspire then it has to do us good by becoming a form of therapy, delivering either catharsis or prophylactic. If it fails in this high-minded purpose, we feel disconcerted or even disgusted. Those who promote or produce art for other, less elevated purposes — such as pleasure from seeing bloody revenge, sexual congress, or tap dancing represented on the screen — are suspect. Such art itself is often denied the very title of ‘art’ and rejected as trash, as commercial obscenity or harmful poison. An art such as cinema, with its roots firmly planted in the soil of commerce, which offers a source of pleasure that is frequently far from pure or aesthetically pleasing and which appeals to senses that can’t be mentioned in polite company, is always going to be suspect. Art in the form of a violent film has too hard a time hauling itself out of the gutter for some critics to even allow it to enter the portals of acceptable culture. A cultural form with such a reputation is not always taken seriously in the hallowed realm of education.

In 1996, the Sydney Morning Herald leader article referred to earlier concluded: ‘film literacy should become a part of a student’s English studies’. Until then it hadn’t occurred to me that it wasn’t. But I discovered that whereas in Victoria and some other states, screen studies, media studies and media production were all a part of a secondary school student’s curriculum, they weren’t in New South Wales. There were, however, enlightened forces at work, and in 1998 the NSW Education Department announced that in the next millennium screen texts would be part of the Year 12 English syllabus. The announcement was treated with derision in some quarters. Many were scandalised, not that the First State had taken so long to catch up with the other states, but that texts in the form of film, television and interactive digital media were to be included alongside the study of the novel, drama, poetry and other ‘literary’ forms.

‘Is this HSC English?’ fulminated radio jock Alan Jones. ‘Haven’t teachers got enough to do? Teachers must just absolutely shudder, absolutely shudder. Isn’t there enough to be done and isn’t there enough good literature to be studied? Star Wars? I’ve no idea what that has to do with the study of English literature. None, absolutely none.’ It wasn’t only the scandalmongers of tabloid journalism who were outraged. In The Australian, Luke Slattery was also to be found hammering on the gates, alongside the barbarians:

Literacy is in crisis…You don’t need a lesson in cinema theory to critically appraise a film. Did Graham Greene? Does Clive James? In fact you just need to be literate in conventional terms, alert to the texture and nuance of what’s before you. You want to be wise to the screen? Well, read more books. [Cinema] is all very now…the more time spent on what is passing, the less time spent on what has endured…

Something like this was probably said when the novel was invented. The sheer ignorance and palpable fear of popular culture displayed by Slattery, a former education editor of the nation’s foremost serious newspaper, reveals a breathtaking lack of knowledge about a cultural product with a history predating the founding of the Federation of Australia. In New South Wales this ignorance had been perpetuated and reinforced by a school syllabus which denied students access to a means of acquiring the necessary skills in cineliteracy to make sense of how screen images make sense of the world.

Today’s school students are tomorrow’s audiences and filmmakers. This yawning gap in their screen education had long been a source of concern to the more thoughtful cultural analysts in academia, to the film and television industries, and to those in the political arena responsible for providing the education and funding for screen production and screen cultural activities. While the addition of screen texts is a welcome corrective to a flawed education system, it doesn’t go far enough. One of the downsides in studying the screen as text is that it limits the possibility of coming to grips with the industrial processes which affect the style and content of films and programs. It also cuts out the reception element which can tell us the sense audiences do or don’t make of what they see on the screen. The actual art on a piece of celluloid (or tape) is only one way of exploring and understanding the moving image.

In September 2000, the issue of how audiences — especially children — perceive and make sense of what is on the screen was raised by two of Australia’s leading cultural commentators in articles about screen violence. In the Sydney Morning Herald, Hugh Mackay argued colourfully:

…the proposition that media violence has made us a more violent society won’t stand up. In Australia, the current homicide rate is about half the rate of 80 or 90 years ago, and if you’re worried about having your bag snatched at the bus stop, imagine the hazards of life in some of the neighbourhoods that once caught the eye of Genghis Khan or Vlad the Impaler.

In The Australian on the same day, Phillip Adams was once again busy coming to some entirely different conclusions. Although he hadn’t personally seen Chopper, he had a friend who had seen it and who had alerted him to its violent content. While Adams believed it was possible for a film to deliver ‘an honest depiction of violence and brutality that confronts us with their truth, and not with a harmless semblance’, he thought the tendency of audiences to laugh at the representation of violence destructive: ‘Behold the cinematic counterpart to the roller-coaster ride. Here you can scream in perfect safety. And we use this material to help us deal with a world where real violence is just around the corner. Just over the next hill. In Timor. In Rwanda. In the Balkans. In Port Arthur.’

It’s clear that what each of these cultural commentators wants cinema ‘to do’, and how they believe audiences ‘read’ films, is entirely different. Adams argues that a violent film should not leave its audiences feeling thrilled or bored but should leave them thinking about their social, economic and political choices. Mackay, on the other hand, is of the cinema-as-catharsis school of thought: ‘if your kids are racing around pretending to shoot each other, or copying acts of TV violence, perhaps you should be thankful their aggression is being discharged so playfully’.

On this point, McKenzie Wark thoughtfully interjects:

This connects to the smoking analogy. Just as that analogy misleads the badly trained into thinking that all there is to it is what is alike in screen violence and tobacco, it is a mistake to see in kids playing shoot ’em up a simple analogy to actual shooting. In both cases…an analogy is understood only in its aspect of likeness, not its aspect of difference. Training in ‘English’ is supposed to help us understand these things. It’s what poetry is about. The problem might not be just that screen texts aren’t taught, or that they’re taught as text, but that interpretation is not taught. If one were taught to read a poem properly, seeing both the like and the unlike in its play of signs, then one could read screen texts better. This is the argument against those like the journalist Luke Slattery et al. It also keeps us from too uncritical an embrace of what is going on in developing high school curricula. Even the ‘progressives’ there sometimes want to use screen material not to teach the art of interpretation, but to bludgeon kids into accepting a particular interpretation.

And so the debate goes on. But what is the debate really about? Mackay put his finger on the answer when he wrote: ‘I sometimes wonder whether the debate about media violence is mainly about aesthetics.’ That’s exactly what it’s about. Aesthetics are about taste, perception, the senses; about judgment, values and about history and class. A violent movie doesn’t itself possess the power to reflect or judge the society that produces it, but audiences possess the power to invest it with the means of coming to terms with what we do and don’t value in our society. We can allow art to raise us to the heavens — and we should be prepared for it also to take us to hell. If we grant it the option to do both or either, then we can begin to learn about the relationship of art to the values of society. What a society wants from its culture is a debate that’s too important to get bogged down in statistics or in obscure academic debate about the nature of cinematic realism. Debate about aesthetics is crucial if a society is to protect and develop the tastes, perceptions and sensibilities of its members. We can’t assess cultural or societal values if we produce art which speaks with only one voice or is ascribed only a single purpose. I disagree with both Phillip Adams and Hugh Mackay in what they believe cinema art is for, because I believe that while one wishes to police the filmmaker, the other wishes to police the audience. We have different tastes and different politics. Personally, I argue for a democratic view of culture that rejects such policing tactics and a society that empowers audiences to read, think and interpret for themselves. But I value greatly their contribution to ensuring that this debate about societal values takes place in the public arena. This is more than many politicians seem to want.

About The Author

Dr Jane Mills is Associate Professor in Communication at Charles Sturt University. Her current research interests concern screen literacy and literacy learning among school students from low socio-economic backgrounds. Her books include The Money Shot: Cinema, Sin and Censorship (Pluto, 2001) and Loving and Hating Hollywood: Reframing Global and Local Cinemas (Allen & Unwin, 2009).

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